- An Issue for Schopenhauer: Whither the Moral Orange?
Before the appearance of Nietzsche in the history of philosophy, Schopenhauer was arguably the aesthete par excellence. In one the most audacious moves in philosophical history, it was Nietzsche who first argued that all of reality could only be legitimized, ultimately, as an aesthetic phenomenon. Prior to Nietzsche, however, it was Schopenhauer who argued something almost as audacious: that the only real remedy for the ills that plague humanity (or the ills with which humanity plagues itself) lies in the aesthetic life.
For Schopenhauer, the extent to which the human is engaged in the contemplation of the beautiful or sublime object is the extent to which the individual’s will, inherently corrupt, is shut down: hence, the aesthetic life as moral remedy, and really the only moral remedy. There is a postmodern curiosity, however, that would prove the Schopenhauerian aesthetic rule: the ramifications surrounding the popularity of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange; the controversies of the film derived from it; and Burgess’s own reflections thereupon.
We know the foundations of Schopenhauer’s thought from his magnum opus, The World as Will and Idea. Ultimate reality for Schopenhauer is Urwille, Primal Will: the blind, cosmic will that bursts forth all individuated beings in the world as individual wills. Individuated wills emerge in the world immediately as works of nature; or, via humankind, indirectly as works of art, fine or practical.
As ultimate reality, Primal Will is, and contains in itself, the simultaneous combustion of all that is entirely rational and irrational at the same time and in the same respect. Only Primal Will is allowed to violate the principle of noncontradiction, and it does so by its very being. Individuated wills, be they chairs, trees, persons, or whatever, by comparison, do not have a perfect synthesis of rationality and irrationality. Thus the key [End Page 476] to Schopenhauer’s pessimism: the human person intuits that there is an ultimate reality, Primal Will, and what the nature of that ultimate reality is, namely, the perfect synthesis of the irrational and the rational. Yet, as Schopenhauer borrows in part from the metaphysics and epistemology of Kant, the human person can never fully know Primal Will by means of concepts, or realize that ultimate reality in the mundane order, as no individuated being can achieve the perfect synthesis of the rational and irrational at the same time and in the same respect, either as knowing subject or individuated object.
So, for Schopenhauer, the individual will is an illusion compared with Primal Will. Accordingly there is nothing a person can do to remedy the ills that plague humanity on a constant basis: “action, in general and by its nature, is only phenomenon or appearance of a will that is itself groundless.”1
Enter, then, the moral perplexity for Schopenhauer: humans as individuated beings with remarkably strong wills are inherently evil and corrupt because, as individuated, they cannot help but will in such a manner that they wish only for their own wills to rule and be satisfied. Consequently, in their selfishness, individuals exercise their wills in such ways that the satisfaction of the wills of others is of secondary concern. The cosmic pox upon humanity dictates that humans, pestered bodily and psychologically on a continual basis, exercise their wills from a desire to relieve the multiple modes of their almost-constant suffering: “All willing springs from lack, from deficiency, and thus from suffering. Fulfillment brings this to an end; yet for one wish that is fulfilled there remain at least ten that are denied. Further, desiring lasts a long time, demands and requests go on to infinity” (ES, p. 267).
In the very exercise of their wills so as to eliminate their suffering, humans cannot help but foist more suffering on others. The result is a constant, cosmic wave of more and more misery. For Schopenhauer, the entire world is a veil of tears, with the only possible remedy being the elimination of the individual will as far as possible, the better, then, to intuit the Will that is the ground of being, Primal Will. For Schopenhauer, the best and really...